- Thomas Gainsborough, and: Angels and Urchins, The Fancy Picture in Eighteenth-Century British Art
The unsuspecting visitor to Ferrara in the summer of 1998 might have been surprised to find Thomas Gainsborough inaugurating an imaginative series of exhibitions devoted to British art in the Palazzo dei Diamanti. Interest in the subject certainly seemed great enough to warrant the enterprise, and the first show was presented with a generous amount of Italian flair, as well as with the clarity and authority one expects of its curator, John Hayes. A series of twelve rooms contained Hayes’s selection of eighty-eight works, including examples of Gainsborough’s early portraits, Bath- and London-period portraits, an equivalent range of landscapes, and a large selection of drawings. Though the idea behind the arrangement could not have been called adventurous, the novelty of the location perhaps justified a conservative approach. There was certainly much to admire in the endeavor and many pictorial rewards to be gained, not least in the opportunity to juxtapose the works of Gainsborough (so often perceived as quintessentially English to the point of insularity) alongside the contents of the adjacent Pinacoteca Nazionale, also housed in the Palazzo.
These visual pleasures, however, were largely incidental to the exhibition’s curatorial scheme. The latter was disappointing, primarily because it failed to reflect the current vigor and diversity of scholarly approaches to the history of British art. The bibliographies included in the catalogue entries are capricious at best, with startling omissions—Edgar Wind on Gainsborough’s self-portraits (nos. 7, 27); Ronald Paulson on Diana and Actaeon, the Watering Place, and the portrait of William Wollaston (nos. 85–87, 40, 6); Marcia Pointon on the portrait of George Colman (no. 18); Ann Bermingham on the Landscape with Figures outside a Cottage (no. 42); and John Barrell on several pictures included in the show. These are names to conjure within the study of British art, and it is a shame that the opportunity was not taken to point those new to the subject in their direction.
Hayes is doubtless the foremost expert on the Gainsborough canon, particularly with regard to the landscapes and drawings, where he has established the oeuvre and provided a chronology that places all scholars firmly in his debt. His visual expertise is unrivaled and was especially notable here in the selection of drawings. Yet the way in which the wall panels, [End Page 391] labels, exhibition guide, and catalogue sought to conduct the viewer through the material on show all revealed flaws in his historiography. This could only be called pre-Baxandall, a fact that was evident in the tendency to chart a developmental line through Gainsborough’s career using three or four basic art-historical mileposts. The Gainsborough who progressively emerged in these textual aids was the familiar observer of nature, who was enchanted by the rococo, swept off his feet by Rubens and Van Dyck, and later anticipated the moods of Romanticism. The words “naturalism” and “influence” (which, in a Euro-pun worthy of Joyce, translates into Italian as “influenza”) are fundamental to Hayes’s introductory essay and catalogue entries, and they characterize an agenda that was often implemented at the expense of the visual evidence. This was perhaps most obvious in the fancy pictures where the approach was clearly inadequate to explain such message-dominated images. One presumed that an Italian eye would immediately have read the iconography of, say, The Woodman (no. 51) in a way that undermined the view that the picture is, in any uncomplicated sense, a portrait of a beggar chanced upon in the street. It also failed to question inherent tensions, for example when the “influence” of Salvator Rosa, Claude Lorrain, Gaspard Dughet, and Burke’s theory of the sublime jostled uneasily with the idea that certain later landscapes might represent a record of particular scenes in the Lake District (cf. no. 44).